In the Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday we hear a story of the greatest importance, both for ourselves and for all Christianity: we hear the story of the beginning of the conversion of the holy chief of the Apostles, St. Peter himself. This was not the first encounter of St. Peter with Christ; his brother, St. Andrew, had brought St. Peter to Jesus in Bethabara and told him that he was the Christ. Afterwards the brethren began to follow the Lord in His earthly wanderings, hearing His teachings and witnessing His miracles. They were with Him as His fame began to spread. The Lord had even lodged under St. Peter’s roof and healed his mother-in-law of her illness. Yet today at Gennesaret, Simon Peter as it were encounters the Lord for the first time: not as an abstract idea, not as a public figure only (however great a figure He doubtless appeared to be), but face to face. St. Peter begins to glimpse that this man is far more than a religious teacher or a political liberator, and he begins to realize that his own life will never be the same. This beginning of St. Peter’s life of apostleship can and must serve to inspire and instruct us also, who are all likewise called to the apostolic life no less than St. Peter himself.
In the first verse of this passage we hear that “the people pressed upon him [i.e. Jesus] to hear the word of God.” It is first of all this eagerness for the word of God which we must cultivate within ourselves. Remember that the people of Israel did not yet realize that the Lord was anything more than a rabbi, or a prophet, or perhaps even the promised Messiah; we ourselves know that He is the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself come in the flesh. The people of Israel desired to hear the teaching of a wise man, or perhaps the healing of their sicknesses, or perhaps even the freeing of Israel from the Roman occupation; we ourselves know that the Lord came to bring us eternal life, the forgiveness of our sins, even deification, union with God Himself; these are things far beyond anything that the people gathered by the lake of Gennesaret could possibly have imagined. And yet how bored we are by all of it! Not only do we not run to hear the word of God, not only do we not press ourselves eagerly toward him who teaches that word, but we can barely even drag ourselves out of bed to receive into ourselves the very Body and Blood of God Himself! My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Let us ask the Lord to enkindle within our hearts at least the first sparks of this fiery longing for the kingdom of heaven, which these simple people of Israel possessed in abundance.
After the Lord finishes instructing the people, He says to St. Peter: “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” That is to say, He tells him to do something which appears to be a waste of time, to be pointless hard labor with no expectation of any meaningful benefit, for St. Peter had already toiled all the night long but had caught nothing. How well this describes the way in which so many of us view the Christian life! We hear the commandments of the Lord, but we do not understand them. We look on them only as labor and toil, and in our state of faithlessness and unbelief we in no way perceive the grace and benefactions stored up within each and every one of them without exception. But in St. Peter’s obedience to this commandment of Christ we can learn three very important lessons, which will help up by God’s grace to overcome our state of spiritual blindness and hardness of heart.
First, we see that St. Peter obeys the Lord’s request meekly, even though all his experience and understanding tell him that to obey would be futile. His obedience is not blind and thoughtless: he calmly acknowledges the full reality of the situation, yet at the same time he humbles his rational mind and commits himself to Christ. It is absolutely necessary that we ourselves practice this apostolic obedience, trusting in God rather than in our own knowledge and understanding no matter how reasonable and well-founded. If we fail to do this, we cannot possibly expect any results in our spiritual life.
But if we follow St. Peter’s example, we will open ourselves to learning the second lesson: we will learn the true nature and heart of the evangelical commandments. You see, it turns out that the Lord gave His command to St. Peter purely out of love and generosity. The command was not an arbitrary test of St. Peter’s faith. It was not given out of some vainglorious need of the Lord to be obeyed by His creatures. Quite simply, the Lord wished to give food to His disciple, and so told him how he might obtain that food. And this is how it is with all of the Lord’s commandments: they are all manifestations of the compassionate and boundless love of God, given out of a desire for nothing else than to bestow His kindness upon His servants. If we learn this lesson well, we will find it much easier to give our obedience willingly and gladly rather than reluctantly and grudgingly. And the more we do this, the more we will learn to trust the One Who always gives generously and abundantly, far above anything we could ever deserve or imagine. We often think that to obey Christ means to lose things that we love and desire. But the things we love are dross, and the things we cling to are ashes. It is only once we let them go that our hands will be free to receive the riches that our Father so greatly desires to give.
Third—and most important—we must learn the response of St. Peter to the kindness and generosity of God: gratitude, yes, but gratitude expressed in compunction, repentance, humility and faith. “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Note well that it was not righteous threatening or chastisement that led St. Peter to this confession, but rather a simple gift of fish one morning in Galilee. Such a gift changed St. Peter’s whole life, because his heart was open, because he caught a glimpse of the power of Him Who holds all creation in the palm of His hand, and saw that this great and incomprehensible Power was being stretched forth not to smite him for his sins, but rather to gently give him his daily bread. And so was proved the saying of St. Paul: it is above all the goodness of God that leads men to repentance.
And behold also the great wisdom of this simple fisherman: far from clinging to the earthly riches he has just been freely given, he rather immediately exchanges all his livelihood, his home, his family and all his possessions for a life of wandering and poverty. The Lord made no demand nor even a simple request for the disciples to forsake all and follow Him. He simply gave to them a catch of fish.
So it must be with us. We must respond to the generosity of the Lord with our own generosity of spirit. As we just heard in the Epistle reading: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” And as the Lord Himself tells us: “For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” This is the simple arithmetic of the spiritual life. It is not complicated. It has all been explained to us quite clearly. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” Let us go then, and do likewise.
+Through the prayers of the Holy Apostle Peter, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.